A United Nations archive containing tens of thousands of war crime files documenting early evidence of the Holocaust has been made available to the public for the first time. The archive proves yet again that the Allies were well aware of Hitler’s death camps and systematic slaughter of the Jews much earlier than once presumed.
The documents reveal that the United States, British and Soviet governments were preparing lists of war crimes charges against Nazi leaders as early as December 1942, after learning that millions of Jews had been killed and millions more were being targeted.
The vast collection includes about 500,000 digitized microfilm images with more than 10,000 case files, in multiple languages, on people identified as war criminals. 37,000 names are listed in a central registry of war criminals and suspects. Some files have lists of personnel at concentration camps including Auschwitz and Ravensbruch.
What is staggering is that not only did all this information fail to move the Allies to do anything concrete to rescue Jews, but the archive, whose purpose was to bring war criminals to justice, accomplished nothing of the sort.
The millions of man-hours it involved and the untold heroic efforts by people to smuggle out information at the risk of their lives were basically in vain.
The massive body of evidence had been submitted by 17 member nations with the aim of assuring that war criminals would be arrested and tried. But the UN War Crimes Commission was shut down in 1948. For the next 40 years, the archive lay forgotten.
Starting from 1987, historians and prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Nazi-hunting Office have drawn information from the archive for their investigations. It has in fact aided in identifying and prosecuting a small number of Holocaust era perpetrators.
Overall, a massive costly project meant to serve as an important instrument of justice became more of a parody of justice, its objectives all but abandoned.
Why All The Fanfare?
The great fanfare surrounding its “revelations” strikes one as bizarre. What revelations? What disclosures? Who today believes the world found out about the hellish nightmare of the gas chambers and crematoria only in 1944?
One recalls the startling accusations in 2009 from the Vatican’s official newspaper that British and American governments ignored, downplayed and suppressed intelligence reports about the Nazi extermination plans.
The Vatican has its own sordid record to expiate and perhaps sought to whitewash that record by highlighting the wartime moral failures of other governments. But its sources in this case were unimpeachable. The Vatican editorial quoted from the diary of Henry Morgenthau Jr., the wartime U.S. secretary of the treasury, who described London’s indifference to the plight of the Jews as “a Satanic combination of British chill and diplomatic double talk, cold and correct and adding up to a sentence of death.”
The editorial quoted Morgenthau as saying that as early as August 1942, the U.S. government “knew that the Nazis were planning to exterminate all the Jews of Europe.”
In his diary, Morgenthau cited a telegram dated August 24, 1942, and passed on to the U.S. State Department, that relayed a report of Hitler’s plan to kill between 3.5 million and four million Jews, possibly using cyanide poison.
American officials had “dodged their grim responsibility, procrastinated when concrete rescue schemes were placed before them, and even suppressed information about atrocities,” Morgenthau wrote.
Jan Karski’s Desperate Mission
Another avenue of early Holocaust information came from Jan Karski, a Polish Catholic who undertook a dramatic rescue mission some sixty years ago on behalf of the Jews of Poland. He sought to halt Hitler’s extermination of the Jews of Europe by offering Allied leaders eyewitness testimony of the Nazi murder machine.
A man of aristocratic bearing who was fluent in four languages and possessed a photographic memory, Karski had joined the Polish diplomatic service one year before Germany invaded Poland in 1939, touching off World War II. As a young man of 28, he undertook the mission that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
In the summer of 1942, two Jewish resistance leaders, hearing that Karski was planning a trip to London to meet leaders of the Polish government-in-exile, approached him and asked if he would be willing to help the hundreds of thousands of trapped Polish Jews awaiting deportation and death at the Nazis’ hands.
The Jews told Karski that by their calculations, more than 1.8 million Jews had already been killed by the Germans, and that 300,000 of the 500,000 Jews jammed into the Warsaw Ghetto had been deported to an obscure village about 60 miles from Warsaw where the Germans had set up a death camp.
Carry This Information To Winston Churchill And FDR
They asked him if he could carry their information to Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They also asked if he would be willing to enter the ghetto and see for himself what was happening, so that he would not be merely a mouthpiece. Karski agreed.
In October, 1939, the Germans had enclosed the main Jewish areas in Warsaw with barbed wire. In less than a year the ghetto was walled in, trapping half a million Jews. By July 1942, the first mass deportations of Jews to extermination camps had begun.
In the third week of August 1942, Karski entered the cellar of an apartment house on the Aryan side of the ghetto wall and met with a youth from the Jewish Combat Organization, then secretly being formed in the ghetto. The youth gave him some ragged clothes and an armband with a blue Star of David and led him through a tunnel.
Decades later, when asked to describe what he had seen, Karski would tell of seeing many dead bodies lying in the streets, and recall the terrible sights of emaciated and starving people, listless infants and older children with hollow eyes.
The sight of trains full of huddled, despairing Jews bound for extermination appalled him. He watched from an apartment while two teenage boys in the uniforms of the Hitler Youth hunted elderly Jews for sport, cheering when one of their rifle shots struck its target and brought screams of pain.
Tell Them We Are Being Systematically Murdered
Karski recalled that as he was led through the ghetto past heart-wrenching scenes of suffering, one of his escorts, Leon Feiner, kept murmuring, ‘’Remember this, you must remember this.’’
Later, Feiner told him, “We want you to tell the Polish and Allied governments that the Germans are not trying so enslave us as they have other peoples; we are being systematically murdered.”
“Three million Polish Jews are doomed,” they said. “Place this responsibility on the shoulders of the Allies. Let not a single leader of the United Nations be able to say that they did not know that we were being murdered in Poland!”
The two men asked Karski to pass on to the Allied leaders the following desperate pleas:
The Allies should publicly proclaim the halting of the extermination of the Jews to be an official goal. Allied propaganda should be used to inform the German people of the war crimes taking place and to publicize the names of German officials taking part.
Through threats of reprisals, the Allies should appeal to the German people to bring pressure on Hitler’s regime to stop the slaughter. The Allies should declare that if the genocide continued and the German masses did not rise to stop it, the German people would be held collectively responsible after the war.
Karski protested that some of these demands were highly unrealistic. For the rest of his life he remembered the response of the man accompanying Mr. Feiner: ‘’We don’t know what is realistic or not realistic. We are dying here! Say it!’’
Infiltrating The Death Camp
Feiner then asked if Karski was ready to carry out another fact-finding mission: Would he be willing to see for himself what was happening at one of the camps to which the trainloads of Jews were being sent under the pretext of resettlement? He would be going out on a dangerous limb by doing so, since discovery would mean certain death.
Karski consented and was smuggled into a death camp near Warsaw in the disguise of a Ukrainian guard. He heard moaning cries of men and women and smelled the stench of burning flesh. Soon he witnessed the arrival of several thousand Jews who had been brought to the camp from Czechoslovakia. He watched as their bags were taken away from them. Then he saw Jews being beaten and stabbed, thrust onto waiting box cars that had been coated with quicklime.
When no more bodies could fit inside, the doors were shut. Karski was told that the trains were heading for a camp not far away where their human cargo would be led into gas chambers.
In London, he turned over vital military documents with which he had been entrusted by the Polish Underground. Then he honored his commitment to the ghetto Jews, carrying his information about the destruction of the Jews to British authorities.
‘’In February 1943, I reported to Anthony Eden,’’ he later wrote about a secret meeting with the British foreign secretary. ‘’He said that Great Britain had already done enough by accepting 100,000 refugees.”
“I Am Unable To Believe You”
In July 1943, Karski arrived in the United States. Two months earlier, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising had taken place. Over three weeks, more than 10,000 Jews were killed in the fighting or in fires set by the Germans. The 56,000 Jews remaining were taken to the Treblinka death camp.
A secret meeting was arranged between Karski and President Roosevelt. He told Roosevelt that commanders of the Polish underground Home Army were saying that without Allied intervention in the next year and a half, the Jews of Poland would ‘’cease to exist.”
“Roosevelt did not show any feelings, did not make any comment about the plight of the Jews,” he recalled. “Tell your nation we shall win the war,” is all the president said.
American Jewish leaders, including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, were present at the meeting, and Karski described to them the nightmarish suffering of the Jews that he had personally witnessed. After a lengthy conversation, Frankfurter, who made a point of telling Karski that he himself was a Jew, said, “I am simply unable to believe you.”
Karski said he knew then that his mission was a failure.
Despite this, the risks he had taken to observe the ghastly secrets of the Final Solution firsthand were not in vain. The reports he delivered about it and the tumult they generated ultimately played a role in bringing about the creation by FDR of War Refugee Board, credited with saving 20,000 lives in the waning months of the war.